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Are democratic freedoms necessary?

"Thou wouldst go into the world, and art going with empty hands, with some promise of freedom which men in their simplicity and their natural unruliness cannot even understand, which they fear and dread – for nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom. But seest Thou these stones in this parched and barren wilderness? Turn them into bread, and mankind will run after Thee like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient, though for ever trembling lest Thou withdraw Thy hand and deny them Thy bread."

Fyodor Dostoevsky is one of Russia’s most celebrated writers. In his youth and as an emerging young writer in St Petersburg, he was a member of the ‘Petrashevsky Circle’, a socialist discussion group. In 1849, when Dostoevsky was only 28, he and twenty other members of the discussion group were arrested and sentenced to be shot by the Tsar’s government. Later, the sentence was commuted to period in a Siberian labour camp. From there, he was sent to a Siberian frontier post as a soldier. He was able to return to St Petersburg only ten years later in 1859. In one of his later novels, he described his incarceration in prison as ‘a period of burial alive; the torture was unutterable and unbearable’.

Dostoevsky returned from Siberia a changed man. From a mild socialist he had become a political conservative. ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ was his last novel and marked, as in all his later writings, by a sardonic view of human nature. The extract quoted above is based on the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness as recorded in the Bible. Dostoevsky, with supreme irony, has the Grand Inquisitor saying that humans do not understand or even desire freedom as long as their material needs are provided.

That seems to be the thinking and rationale of our political leaders as well. It has been so for most of the last few decades. Political leaders, enjoying authoritarian powers and basking in the adulation of sycophantic cheer leaders, think that if they provided the people with bread, the people would always keep running after them like a flock of sheep. But man does not live by bread alone. Sooner or later, he will want the higher things of life, even if the supply of bread does not run out. If those are not given they will turn against their rulers. That is when the authoritarian rulers have, throughout history and throughout the world, been disgraced and turned out of office. There is thus no alternative to providing the people with democratic freedoms – journalists the freedom to write critically, the political opposition the freedom to dissent and the vulnerable the freedom to live in dignity.

Ministerial Appoitments

President Rajapaksa must bear this in mind. Curtailment of democratic freedoms may not evoke wide resentment in the short term particularly not long after the euphoria of victory over the LTTE. But he needs to be aware that Oopposition can build up over the years unless there is seen to be transparency, good intentions and good governance. Some of his recent actions do not bring him much credit. The short-lived appointment of Mervyn Silva as Deputy Minister for the Media was a case in point. There was clear evidence, captured by alert television camera persons, of the involvement of him and his henchmen in the intimidation at the Rupavahini and MTV. The mildest explanation for President Rajapaksa’s action in appointing such a person to be in charge of the media was that he wanted to send a message to the media that it must ‘toe the line’ or face the consequences. The harsher explanation was that President Rajapaksa had at least prior knowledge of the actions of Mervyn Silva and the latter was being rewarded for carrying out his mandate. Either way, President Rajapaksa did not do himself any favours by that initial appointment.

The re-poll ordered in Nawalapitiya by the Commissioner of Elections was unprecedented and brought disgrace to our parliamentary electoral process, even taking into account the increasing violence and intimidation that has marked elections in our country in recent decades. But Mahindananda Aluthgamage, widely believed to be responsible for the necessity for the re-poll, is rewarded with a deputy ministerial position. Discerning persons are not unaware that persons obtaining a large proportion of the preferential votes are not necessarily the right people to hold democratic office. Certainly not those believed to have engaged in violence and thuggery.

The action of the President in bringing the office of the Attorney-General directly under him may not make much difference in practice. But what then was the necessity to do away with a convention that we have had ever since the position was created in our country? That was some one hundred and twenty five years ago. It creates the impression that there is something sinister intention in bringing the Government’s chief legal prosecutor and advisor directly under the President. It creates the impression that the already politicised Department is going to be even more politicised. Sadly, it will mean that the Department will lose the professional distinction and dignity that it enjoyed in the past.

Constitutional Amendments

There are also disturbing rumours that the Government plans to bring two constitutional amendments to do away with the two-term restriction for serving Presidents and also to amend the Seventeenth Amendment for the Constitutional Council to consist only of the President, Prime Minister, the Speaker and the Leader of the Opposition, instead of the present system of selecting independent people by consensus among the Government and Opposition. If true, both amendments serve only partisan interests and defeat the purposes for which the 17th Amendment was proposed. The Government claimed that the 17th amendment had flaws and that was why the President openly flouted the Constitution in the last Parliament. Now this amendment, if true, gives the lie to that claim. The seventeenth Amendment, despote any flaws, would have resulted in an independent Constitutional Council and following from it, independent Commissions to ensure an independent Public Service, an independent Police Service, etc. Both proposed amendments – an extension of the Presidential term and the creation of politicised Constitutional Council – will result in a further erosion of democratic norms in our political life. We trust that saner counsel well prevail and the Government, especially its senior partner the SLFP, will not proceed with these amendments, in case they are being contemplated.

While the appointment of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission is to be welcomed, the mandate given to the Commission specifically requires investigation into the circumstances leading to the failure of the Cease-fire Agreement and the ‘events following’ up to the end of the war, raises questions. This mandate could be interpreted as to mean placing emphasis on investigating the mistakes made by the then UNP government in signing the CFA rather than about eliciting the truth and forging reconciliation. We trust this is not the intention and the Commission will work towards forgiveness and national reconciliation. It consists of eminent persons in their own right. The only expatriate in the Commission reportedly delivered the D. A. Rajapaksa Memorial Lecture recently. Two others presently hold public office. We trust that they will all show true independence and will make their investigations and recommendations free of any political interference or biases, because we know that the local members of the Commissions are persons of integrity.

The Government began its parliamentary sessions in getting opposition concurrence in electing the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker and the Deputy Chairman of Committees. It is a pity that this consensus approach is not going to be extended to the Chairmanship of the COPE and PAC. By convention, it is opposition members who are given preference in chairing these watchdog committees. Bernard Soysa of the LSSP was for many years a much respected and an exemplary Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. It is still not too late to put this right. Government ministries, corporations and statutory institutions must be subject to scrutiny and any irregularities highlighted with a view to putting them right. It is opposition-chaired PAC and COPE that can encourage independent scrutiny.

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